Philadelphia’s most beloved sons The Roots are essentially incapable of disappointment, which is if possible even more impressive when you discover their extraordinary diversity. For the regular individual, they might be best known as the house band for Jimmy Fallon’s late night talk show. Here, they take care of every musical aspect of the show from the clever choices for each guest’s walk-on music to backing musical guests. Though, if you have dug slightly deeper you will have realised that they’ve continuously stood on the cutting edge of hip-hop’s evolution by refusing to yield to the trends of the day in favour of pushing the boundaries of what we expect from urban music. Definitely not ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ then.
The Roots are most known for what some refer to as ‘high-brow’ hip hop, where others, including myself view it simply as something which is at the core of the genre. The clue that the bands eleventh studio album follows this inclination is the title of this concept project. ‘And You Shoot Your Cousin’ is a phrase coined by the prodigious KRS-One in his track ‘Step Into A World’: “MCs more worried about their financial backin’, steady packin’ a gat as if something’s gonna happen, but it doesn’t, they wind up shootin’ they cousin, they buggin’.” Questlove has actually called this record satire, adding “but in that satire, it’s an analysis of some of the stereotypes perpetuated in not only the hip-hop community, but in the community.” It’s satire then. But trust me its melancholic satire, mirthless, with nothing but dread at its centre.
The album opens with Nina Simone’s sombre ‘Theme From The Middle Of The Night’, the title track off a 1959 film. The film, adapted from a Broadway play, explored the idea of freedom in America. This is an idea which this album interprets, what life in America is like for those born without entitlement. This concept carries through to ‘Never’ which has the illustrious Black Thought rhyming excruciatingly honestly. “I’m trying to keep both feet on the ground…I wish I could rest,” and “I’m getting wasted on an everyday basis…I’m gonna go quietly”. Thought helps remind you right here on this track that this album is menacing hip hop. On the piano-driven ‘The Dark (Trinity),’ he spits a similar story, but with a larger emphasis on being a minority in a country that is built to repress, rhyming “the law of gravity meets of law of averages” with “in attempting to civilize savages.” Things get even more racially focused on ‘Understand,’ when Thought leaves you cold in your tracks with the line, “Grave digger, dig a hole fit for a black n*gger.”
Though, not all of this project is focused on Black America, it deals with oppression no matter what forms it takes, or what part of society it may reside in. Whether you’re a minority, drug addict or a “sex-addicted introvert” as Thought describes on ‘When The People Cheer’. The Roots have tried to focus on those who may not conform to society then, sub-groups who feel the pressures of our culture and what is ‘expected’ of them. Greg Porn sums it up nicely on the chorus of ‘The Dark (Trinity),’ when he sings, “The world ain’t ready for me.”
Another common theme of this album, one which has been a common theme within this band over the last twenty years is the poetic skill of Black Thought. He once again demonstrates why he is one of the most underrated MCs of all time, always bringing Questlove’s abstract sounds back to the street. With regards to the sounds that have been crafted by Questlove, Kirk Douglas and the gang bring together all the remnants that we associate with The Roots, soul, gospel and even electro. Many of the tracks feature only one verse and value elaborate instrument solos and improvisation more than vocals. Other moments, like the Mary Lou Williams-sampling ‘The Devil’ and the Brian Eno-sounding finish of ‘The Coming’ serve more as tension-setting interludes than actual songs. Because of all of this and the fact that its a surprisingly petite thirty-four minutes long, this album has more in common with a guideline for a theatrical production than it does with a hip-hop album. This is what is so brilliant about this project. Even at their eleventh attempt at this game, The Roots are still surprising us with images that are more provocative and vivid than ever.
The narratives of this concept and the focus of its lyrics are not by any means brand new topics, especially for The Roots. Appealing to those in our society who may not fit in to it, and explaining to the rest of society that is perfectly okay, while highlighting some of the problems that have caused this view on the world. However, what is new is the way Questlove and co have fashioned and executed this album. The interludes, piercing sounds and menacing instrument solos really give these topics a new foundation in which to be heard. By the sounds of his recent movements, this is exactly what Questlove wants to do, finding that perfect balance between staying true to their roots, and staying completely innovative, within hip hop and music entirely. They have achieved this, forever expanding their music into the stratosphere by not paying too much attention to what today, a hip hop record ‘should’ be.